Richard Kessler, an immigration lawyer in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he was surprised when a woman he had worked with called to tell him that her son, a 27-year-old Marine veteran with mental-health issues, was being held in an immigration facility, apparently awaiting a possible deportation.
Jilmar Ramos-Gomez, whose service as a lance corporal and tank crewman included time in Afghanistan, was born in the Michigan city of 200,000. Kessler said he didn’t understand what was going on.
“I was shocked,” he said in an interview. “Everybody knows that Jilmar is a U.S. citizen and a Marines vet.”
Because Kessler had worked on a case to secure temporary residency for Ramos-Gomez’s mother, who is originally from Guatemala, under Citizenship and Immigration Services' “parole in place” stipulations for parents of service members, he said he had Ramos-Gomez’s proof of citizenship readily available, including the veteran’s birth certificate and Social Security information.
“I immediately called ICE and shouted at them,” he said. “And they called me back and said, kind of, ‘Oops, yeah, come and get him.’ They didn’t say, ‘Our bad,’ but kind of implied that.”
Ramos-Gomez’s story rocketed to national attention on Wednesday after the American Civil Liberties Union called for the county to investigate how an American citizen and decorated veteran was taken into ICE custody.
Ramos-Gomez enlisted in the Marines after high school, serving between 2011 and 2014 and earning a National Defense Service Medal, a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, an Afghanistan Campaign Medal, and a combat action ribbon, according to the ACLU. But he came back suffering from severe effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, the organization said.
“His family reports that he is focused on returning for his marine brothers in Afghanistan,” the ACLU said in a statement. “He has episodes where he disappears and when he is found again, he often has no recollection of where he has been.”
On Nov. 21, Ramos-Gomez was arrested by police in Grand Rapids and held at the Kent County Correctional Facility on charges of arson and malicious destruction of property after police said he gained access to a secure area at a hospital, set a fire and pulled an alarm. It was not immediately clear whether he was a patient at the hospital.
Ramos-Gomez pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor trespassing charge for the incident and was ordered by a judge to be released on Dec. 14 — a Friday — pending his sentencing, which would probably amount to time served, according to Kessler. But when his mother arrived to pick him up around his 4 p.m. release, she was told he had been transferred to an immigration detention center that day in Calhoun County.
“At that point, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department should have immediately released Mr. Ramos-Gomez,” the ACLU said. “Instead, the Sheriff’s Department worked with ICE agents to enable his transfer to an immigration detention center in Calhoun County to start the deportation process. … It is unclear how that was possible or why the jail believed it should hand Mr. Ramos-Gomez over to ICE, rather than release him as required by the court order."
Ramos-Gomez was subject to an ICE detainer, the ACLU said.
He remained at the facility until Dec. 17, when Kessler helped secure his release. Kessler said he believes that ICE had met with Ramos-Gomez previously at the Kent County jail in November.
Emailed requests to ICE for more information on the case were returned with an automatic reply that said communications officials were not working during the government shutdown.
The agency told a local reporter that Ramos-Gomez “repeatedly claimed to be a foreign citizen unlawfully present in the United States.”
Kessler said that doesn’t explain why they had Ramos-Gomez on their radar in the first place — or why immigration officials didn’t verify whether he was a U.S. citizen on their own.
“I think it’s racial stereotyping,” Kessler said. “And it should have been evident that he had pretty significant mental- health issues.”
The Kent County Sheriff’s Office said that it was reviewing the case but had found no indication that it involved policy violations on its part.
“The role of the Kent County Sheriff’s Office in this very unfortunate situation was that of a holding facility,” it said in a statement. “We do not possess the authority to verify the investigative justification for detaining a person.”
Kessler said that Ramos-Gomez was not available to comment on the case, as he is currently receiving treatment at a mental-health facility.
Some noncitizens have been allowed to serve in the U.S. military, only to be deported years later after running into legal troubles. Miguel Perez, an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan and who said he suffered from PTSD, was deported to Mexico last year after a felony drug conviction, according to CNN.